The European Super League – remember that? We certainly didn’t but with one of the worst-planned communications launches turning one this month, it’s safe to say it left a resounding stain on the PR world with many lessons learned.

This time last year the European Super League was launched (on a Sunday night and after the National Newspapers had all gone to press!) with a three-page press release and its creators eagerly waiting for the coverage. Shock, the coverage they received was not what they were hoping for. The idea of an ESL was shut down within 48 hours by footballing influencers, political figures and the general public alike, leaving a sour taste in the mouths for its bosses. From this, there were many PR lessons learned, but not all of them have been taken forward.

The World Cup Qatar 2022 – it’s up there as one of the most controversial sporting events and has seemingly not learned from the gaffes of the ESL. The continued reports on the exploitation of human rights against the migrant workers who are helping to build the stadiums, and the country’s criminalization of homosexuality, has meant some bad PR for the country with some even thinking of boycotting the event altogether.

So, with all that in mind, here’s a throwback Friday blog on the PR lessons learned from the European Super League for you to avoid in your next big announcement, and to hopefully ensure this World Cup  is one to remember, and not to forget.

Three PR takeaways from the European Super League debacle

It takes a pretty large story to break through a news cycle dominated by Covid fog and the aftermath of a royal funeral, but well into the watershed hours Sunday night marked the start a media whirlwind. Communicated via a press release linked to a basic website containing only three pages, the European Super League (ESL) was born – and 48 hours later it was pronounced dead.

Just 12 hours later and as one publicist commentator set the scene, “ESL was 3-0 down, in danger of having its entire first-team squad suspended and on the brink of a violent pitch invasion…all before kick-off. If that image doesn’t hit home, make no mistake, this is one of the worst-planned large-scale communications launches in history”.

The reasons the competition never got off the ground have been widely covered by sports, national and international press in the furore of announcement, debacle and a plethora of apologies, chest beating and the wearing of hair shirts sporting team strips. So, in this blog we wanted to zero in on some of the PR lessons learned – and they aren’t all bad! There have been some big winners, just not the 12 founding members left walking back to their respective leagues with their tails between their legs.

  1. Timing is everything – but there’s never a good time to release bad news

As those in the B2B media and particularly in the traditional dead tree press world know, the best time to release bad news is usually a Friday at 5pm or to slip under the radar by sharing a release at the same time as a huge global story is breaking. The B2C equivalent is late on a Sunday night, preferably late enough to ensure your story can’t end up on the front pages of the national press, which will have already gone to print.

But the age of digital communications means bad news can’t be so easily buried, and social media and online news outlets were already abuzz with significant backlash to the Super League’s plans. Fans, journalists and pundits were the first to voice their concerns about fair competition and air their worries about how this would impact the football pyramid, particularly given six English clubs were involved.

This growing media spotlight was intensified by the fact one of the six clubs (Liverpool) would be televised on Monday Night Football (MNF), the Sky Sports flagship program which ironically was set up to replicate the hugely successful NFL Monday Night Football show, allowing analysts and fans to deep dive into a single fixture.

And indeed, a deeper dive was taken. English football’s most revered pundits, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, had the perfect platform to take aim at the American-owned clubs they’d once played for, urging fans to take a stand against what they called “an attack on everything that’s been important in this country”.

The viewing figures for the first 40 minutes of the show probably exceeded the pretty awful 1-1 Liverpool v a newly dressed Leeds team sporting shirts branded Football is for the FANS draw that followed! The late Leeds equalizer represented a victory for football, a victory for whoever got those Leeds shirts branded and on the team, and the whole MNF program showed that this was quickly becoming a PR own goal for the Super League organizers

  1. 48 hours can turn villains into heroes – Neville for PM??

Continuing with the Gary Neville theme, now the dust has settled his stock has risen far more than Juventus or Manchester United’s. Following MNF, Gary Neville was quick to capitalise on the situation – he took to social media to urge the entire footballing community and the government to come together.

By his own admission, Gary Neville has made significant money from football from his time as a player and pundit, and lower league fans have been highly critical of the rise of Salford City, the club he and a number of other high-profile investors have pumped up the football pyramid since 2014. But Neville’s recent performance even has him being hyped as a future MP! “An articulate and apparently fearless man, Neville would surely be an excellent Member of Parliament for a constituency in the north west,” according to the Spectator.

Special mention for Boris Johnson here too, who will have done his image no harm by declaring he would be doing everything the Government could to give the Super League a “straight red”.

And how about this for a character arc. Bayern Munich, one of Europe’s most hated clubs, has long been attacked for its domination of German domestic football. Its finances and reputation have allowed them to buy the best players from their main rivals for years. But because of their 51% fan ownership they had not committed to the new league – suddenly they’re being hailed as everything that’s right with fair play and club management!

  1. Start with the worst-case scenario – have we seen the last of the ESL?

While the execution of the ESL announcement has been categorized as a PR disaster, many shrewd commentators are realizing this could just be a first foot in the door on the road to a new footballing future.

This may have been a testing of the water, and you can guarantee the PR behind the next move for a new European league will be better thought out. But this may well have just been an opening gambit. Businessman and former Crystal Palace Chairman Simon Jordan has described this as a “horse-trade” , i.e. if you want to buy a horse, ask to buy the farm first.

He suggests that while these large clubs have publicly put their best foot forward to prove they had the backing of a financial giant like JP Morgan and that they could finance a breakaway, their real intention was to strike a shot across the bow of UEFA and a deal will be struck in the future. The hope also being that a more detailed and well thought-out PR plan will help deliver a revised European Cup alternative going forward or change the existing model.

Watch this space

These are just a few observations from a story that burned bright for a very short period, before fizzling out. Despite that, it’s certainly going to be used as a PR case study which will be analyzed for a long time to come.

Jamie Kightley is Head of Client Services at IBA International.

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